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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.

Central Business District

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Next: Central Business District (Part II)

Early commercial activity prospered on the east side of the Mississippi River in what was then the town of St. Anthony. The first store opened on Main Street in 1848 and other business establishments soon followed. To this day, the street retains its cobblestone charm and two buildings originating from the 1850s remain standing. The first commercial district on the west side of the river centered on Bridge Square, where Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues came together. The original City Hall, built in 1873, was the anchor. As the area became more congested, the business district began expanding south from Washington Avenue.

Two views of Nicollet Avenue in early part of 20th century.
Minneapolis Collection, Postcards: Streets: Nicollet.

Elizabeth Quinlan, first woman clothing buyer in the country, opened the Young Quinlan store in 1894. (Pictured with Russell Plimpton and C. O. Kalman.)
Minneapolis Collection, M2778.

Nicollet Avenue became the primary shopping street with the opening of stores such as Powers (1881), Donaldson's (1884), Young Quinlan (1894), and Dayton's (1902). Elizabeth Quinlan was the first and only woman-clothing buyer in the country at the time her ready-to-wear store opened. The construction of the Lumber Exchange building in 1885 helped establish Hennepin Avenue as the primary office district. Gradually, Hennepin Avenue took on another dimension, that of the theater district. At least twenty-five theaters were entertaining customers by 1916. (See also Arts & Entertainment: Theater.)

Aerial view of Gateway Center Building and the Nicollet Hotel.
Minneapolis Collection, M3837.

Gateway district after demolition of many of its buildings, July 1963. The view is along Hennepin Avenue toward the Mississippi River. The Great Northern Railroad Station is still standing on the left.
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL1370.

Meanwhile, the office and financial district shifted to Marquette and 2nd Avenues, where it remains today. Bridge Square was transformed into Gateway Park in 1915. Because of its strategic location, with proximity to the railroad stations where numerous newcomers disembarked, to the river, and to the city itself, it was to be the "vestibule of the city". The park had comfort stations, a classic fountain, a pavilion, formal gardens, and a George Washington Memorial Flagstaff. The inscription on the pavilion read "The Gateway: More than her gates the city opens her heart to you." The park failed to live up to expectations, however, because nearby cheap hotels and rooming houses gradually transformed the area into the city's "Skid Row".

Gateway Park became Gateway Redevelopment in the 1950s in a massive urban renewal program. One aspect of this redevelopment was the decision to relocate the new Minneapolis Public Library to 4th Street and Nicollet Avenue. The library opened in 1961 and was intended to lead the way for regenerating the city's north end. When ground was broken for the new library in 1958, planners hoped that someday the library would be surrounded by new hotels, public buildings and park space, instead of the run-down brick buildings that stood nearby. The library did indeed bring about a slow rebirth; by the 1980s, posh condominiums replaced the parking lots that had replaced the aged warehouses and bars. However, by the 1990s, the library again became an island in a sea of empty parking lots, as both the neighboring hotels, the old Nicollet and the newer Sheraton Ritz, were torn down.

Third Avenue Bridge with Minneapolis skyline in background (1950's).
Minneapolis Collection, M4910.

Previous: Other Industries

Next: Central Business District (Part II)